Thursday, September 16, 2010

Instant Legality

About four years ago, the genealogy bug bit. My modest response to the itch was to google around a little on the Internet to see if any Klades would turn up in Germany or thereabouts. One did—a resident of Bremerhaven, a principal port city.

That was especially interesting, because family lore held that Grandma and Grandpa Klade both sailed from Bremerhaven to America in the mid-1800s. They did not emigrate together, however. They met and married in Wisconsin.

My German e-mail contact’s husband was a Klade who grew up in Austria. That also was interesting, because no American Klades I knew ever mentioned any Austrian Klades. The wife wrote to me because her husband was not fluent in English. She did very well with the language, and we exchanged many messages before the cyberlink was broken. Her address stopped functioning; I never learned why or was able to reestablish the contact.

We failed to establish any links between the American Klades I knew about and the Central European variety. Toward the end of that exploration, I asked about access to documents in Bremerhaven that might provide some details about the early days of my grandfather and grandmother. “Are you sure you want to do that?” my pen pal asked.

She said the local Prince who reigned over the area that now includes Bremerhaven decided to empty as many of his prison cells as possible to save money. He turned robbers, rapists, murderers, and other unsavory characters loose if they would agree to sail to America and never come back. To smooth the way, the Prince provided phony birth certificates and other documents. Many young German men, who violated laws by avoiding military service, joined the jail birds. Often, they used fake identities to get out of Prussia, Bavaria, or other Germanic countries and into the U.S.

“A lot of German-Americans were criminals,” my contact said. “There’s no assurance your relatives weren’t among them.”

We are a nation of all types of immigrants. Slave ships delivered many. Indentured servants stayed once they worked off the costs of their passage. Many fled political or religious persecution or economic deprivation. And, the official stamp on questionable documents at Ellis Island instantly converted many of our ancestors from illegal to legal arrivals.

Perhaps a dash of humility would be in order to temper some of the current intemperate rantings about illegals.


joared said...

Interesting as I've thought of checking out some European ancestors. Recently heard some reports about some unsavory American characters part of one element of family whose ancestors may have come out of France and England. I have no qualms about learning about them, just haven't wanted to take the time and effort to do all the searching.
Actually, think I'd feel kinda smug that somewhere along the line the individual or family straightened out their lives a bit, or maybe the person who crossed the pond might, indeed, have positively reversed their lives.

Dick Klade said...

Agree. It would actually be fun to find a few bad guys in the family tree, especially if they had a good redemption story.

So far, all I've turned up along those lines are strong rumors about some very bad conduct by two cousins, who are said to have become notorious ladies of the night. They were second-generation immigrants, however, so they learned their trade in the U.S., not in Europe. It appears they did not seek or receive redemption.